Transports and Trauma: Dialogue Needed on EMT Conduct

Content Warning: This column discusses the author’s experience with sexual assault and subsequent trauma. 

During
my first year at Pomona College, I was transported after binge drinking in
preparation for a 5C party. I had been sexually assaulted several months
earlier, at my first college-sponsored party. I told myself that to be able to
go to another party, I needed to be drunk enough not to care what guys would do
to me, drunk enough that I wouldn’t try to say “No.”

I had
already learned that saying “No,” pushing away and trying to leave weren’t always enough.

My logic
was obviously flawed, and I’m responsible for making a very irresponsible
choice. I felt, and feel, overwhelming shame at having been transported. Being
sexually assaulted wasn’t my fault,
but binge drinking was.

As I
tried to apologize, the EMTs stood over me, repeating: “You should be ashamed
of yourself,” and calling me names. I
would have understood if my parents, or the administration, had reacted with
anger—though both my parents and the administration responded with more
kindness and compassion than I could have asked for. But the job of the EMTs
called to transport a student to the hospital is not to humiliate, to threaten or to punish. It is to provide care and to ensure the student’s well being. This
is not what happened.   

The EMTs
did not respond to my repeated disclosures of a recent sexual assault. When I
begged the EMTs to let one of my friends come in the ambulance with me, they
refused—assuming my friends were drunk, too. They weren’t. I tried to avoid panic as I explained how
unsafe I felt being alone in an enclosed space, restrained to a completely
horizontal, bed-like gurney, surrounded by men. The EMTs told me that the straps
were just seatbelts. They then threatened that if I didn’t stop crying, they
would “show me real restraints.”

The
moment the doors of the ambulance shut was the single most terrifying moment of
my life. I was mentally re-experiencing my assault and the vulnerability that
I’d been trying so desperately to forget.

While my
memory of the specific, chronological events of the transport is clear, it is
more difficult to put into words exactly what I was experiencing mentally. When
they touched me, I felt his hands. While they alternately told me to relax and
threatened me, I heard his voice. When I tried to move and realized I was being
held down, I remembered how to stop feeling and tried to detach from my body. I
was hovering in between the ambulance and the parking garage where I was
assaulted, in between over-dramatic party-girl and victim, and somehow both
outside of my body and unable to escape it. I still didn’t have the right to
leave or decide what happened to my body. I still didn’t have a right to “No.”

At the
hospital, I was threatened with arrest if I didn’t stop crying. I remember very
vividly thinking about the irony of being threatened with arrest for being
unable to stop crying while experiencing flashbacks to a sexual assault for
which the perpetrator would never face any consequences.  

Let me
be clear: The EMTs were not responsible for me drinking too much, and I don’t
believe that they were trying to re-traumatize me. They were in a difficult
situation, and likely doing the best they could.

One in
five women in college is sexually assaulted, and yet, as far as I know, EMTs
(at least those sent to campus) do not receive training in sexual violence or
PTSD. This needs to change.

I can
only speak to my experience and don’t mean to suggest that all EMTs behave
this way or that all survivors who are transported have the same experience.
That said, I have heard other students who have trauma histories describe
similar experiences with EMTs and seen friends and peers avoid calling for
help—even when at serious risk—because they have been more afraid of
experiencing re-traumatization than of the physical danger they were facing.

We
deserve respectful medical care without being shamed or threatened—even when we
make irresponsible decisions. Those of us with trauma histories ought to have
access to medical care that takes the impact of that trauma seriously. 

Airport security is
required to have a female TSA agent conduct “pat downs” on women, and it is up
to the passenger whether this is done in public or private. And yet, there is no standard for
having a female EMT in an ambulance when women are (non-consensually)
transported. There seems to be no procedure for helping someone who is
traumatized, who feels unsafe in enclosed spaces with strange men or who makes it very clear that they have experienced violence.

As a
community, we should of course be working to reduce the need for alcohol-related transports. The Claremont Colleges and the medical professionals in the area want students to be safe. Transports should be a last resort, but they are a
crucial part of our on-campus safety system.

Conversations
about alcohol safety need to happen, but there also needs to be a conversation
about what happens when preventative measures fail. Administrative decisions
regarding improving alcohol-safety on campus need to take the
experiences of survivors into account. Specifically, I would hope to see the administration
collaborate with the L.A. County Fire Department (the organization that provides
paramedics in Claremont) to ensure that responding EMTs have adequate training in
responding to survivors of sexual violence and trauma. Students deserve access
to emergency medical care without facing humiliation, threats or a refusal to
acknowledge trauma.  

Editor’s note: TSL chose to publish this piece anonymously due to the private nature of its content. We believe the author’s opinion is an important contribution to campus-wide dialogue about important issues affecting our community and hope it prompts further discussion. 

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